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In 2000, gay readers led the world in embracing the teenaged author of a slender novel titled Sarah. JT LeRoy was a street-dwelling, heroin-addicted, HIV-infected, gender-bent prostitute, abused and abandoned in San Francisco at age fifteen by his mother. Encouraged by a youth-center psychologist to write his life story as a healing process, JT dredged this autobiographical novel from the ravaged depths of his soul.
He brought us into a world of truck-stop whores called “lot lizards” who wore amulets fashioned from raccoon-penis bones, and he shared his hard-earned wisdom: “You have to learn to read a man and know when he’s just lookin’ for fun and when what he really needs is for you to hold him so he can cry his eyes out like a babe.”
The first voice we hear in the new documentary The Cult of JT LeRoy is Terry Gross, as she interviews the famously reclusive boy by telephone in 2001, the year he turned twenty-one. “Jerome Terminator” haltingly answers Terry’s questions in a soft West Virginia drawl. This appearance on NPR’s “Fresh Air” introduced millions of people to the terrified kid who wrote about “his experiences as a cross-dressing twelve-year-old hustler.” He did not merely impress us with his raw, lyrical prose; he inspired us to love him so that he might survive.
JT said that the book was fiction closely based on his life. Readers agonized for the child: How much of his trauma had he left out? JT’s subsequent book of short stories partially answered that question and fed a hungry audience. The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things was translated into twenty languages and nominated for a 2001 Lambda Literary Foundation Award.
JT found a home with a San Francisco couple who became his constant companions. He enjoyed five years of heady success, including months-long book tours in Europe and Asia, and had a movie deal in the works, with Gus Van Sant signed on to direct. When he could be persuaded to appear in public, JT wore big hats, sunglasses, wigs and even masks. He remained too disturbed by his violent childhood to speak in groups—like “a frightened, feral animal,” in the words of his literary agent. In the documentary, we see celebrities at crowded book-signing events lined up to donate their time reading passages from JT’s work.
Abruptly, in October 2005, New York magazine ran a thoroughly researched exposé revealing that JT LeRoy did not exist. His books had been written by Laura Albert, a forty-year-old phone-sex operator. She and her boyfriend were the couple who had purportedly given JT a home. The shadowy, bewigged figure who portrayed JT at public events was the younger sister of Ms. Albert’s boyfriend.
Many of us who loved JT’s books clearly remember the moment we first heard about the hoax, in the way we remember where we were when news broke that Princess Diana had died in a violent car crash. In the same way, our reaction was No! A follow-up story in the New York Times documented the details of the ruse, but still, many fans waited for the young JT to step from the shadows and explain. Eventually, spurred by a court judgment in a lawsuit brought by a film company, we had to acknowledge that JT LeRoy had, in fact, been an invention.
The film’s title is apt: In cults, intelligent people have been known to suspend rationality in order to believe something that does not make sense. Yet, not everyone had been taken in. Brian Pera, a writer and former sex worker, had noticed that the stories he was hearing concerning JT were full of contradictions; he passed along his observations to Stephen Beachy, who began the research that led to his writing the New York exposé. The writer Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore lampooned the JT legend long before the big story broke. The film includes archival footage of Sycamore on stage with other gender-bending sex-worker performance artists, in blonde JT-style wigs. They sing gleefully that none of them has ever met the legendary JT, who for years had claimed to be cruising the same San Francisco streets that they cruise, using the same drugs, evading the same cops.
During JT’s years of success, Ms. Albert received comped international travel for herself and JT’s entourage, signed more book contracts, deposited a handsome film-option check, and—well, she deposited many checks, all payable to “Underdogs Inc.,” the Nevada corporation she had formed for the purpose of receiving JT’s bountiful revenues.
Albert’s supporters celebrate her genius as a performance artist and consider this film a smear piece. They have attempted—unsuccessfully, thus far—to keep it out of festivals. They seem not to recognize that the film is a testament to Ms. Albert’s inventiveness and diligence. I’ve known generally about the hoax since it was first exposed, but only when I saw the film did I realize how elaborately, ingeniously and tirelessly she had labored. Before anyone had heard of JT, beginning when “he” claimed he was fifteen, she spent thousands of late-night hours on the phone with several carefully selected people, many of them middle-aged gay men in the publishing industry, posing as the damaged, gender-confused JT and threatening suicide.
Actress Susan Dey recalls “how much I wanted to be able to heal this young person through nurturing.” Others did try to rescue him. “I was his entire world,” says novelist Dennis Cooper, whom JT contacted while supposedly living in an alley. Cooper’s street-dwelling young characters have much in common with the JT whom Cooper thought he knew well. “I was his mother, his father. He was in love with me.” Bruce Benderson, whose fiction also features hard-bitten, cynical but vulnerable characters, explains that he felt “responsibility to look after him” and describes spending sleepless nights after JT announced that he was going out to seek violent sex. Benderson acknowledges that his need to protect and nurture JT “was so strong that it put me in denial, so I was able to swallow the most blatant kinds of fraud.”
JT exchanged his love for a lot of editing guidance and access to the literary establishment. With this support, the homeless teenager secured the services of literary agent Henry Dunow and a book contract with Bloomsbury. Benderson wrote the lead blurb for JT’s first book, calling JT “unforgettably touching and poetic.”
We praised and purchased the books when we thought that they had been written by a damaged youth whose redemption required that we believe in him. Like Oprah—who felt “betrayed” when James Frey admitted that he had fabricated sections of his cartoonish memoir A Million Little Pieces—people had promoted JT thinking that they were rescuing a human soul, not endorsing an ambitious literary pretender.
When readers accepted that JT was a fiction, they split into two camps: those who loved the books regardless of who had written them, and those who felt betrayed or at least embarrassed and decided that the work was not so brilliant if a suffering teenager had not created it.
If The Cult of JT LeRoy were simply a meditation on celebrity, it would still be worth seeing. But the film is more complex and interesting than that. We know we’re in a unique documentary when scenes from The Exorcist play onscreen while one of the impostor’s harshest critics discusses her particular brand of “evil.” Director Marjorie Sturm began work on what was to become the documentary in 2002, shooting much of the video that we see. She traveled on her own dime, donating time and resources in order to promote JT’s books and career. She, too, was duped, and the Exorcist clips seem to speak of her personal sense of betrayal.
Mattilda Sycamore points out that Ms. Albert merely hacked the celebrity-making apparatus more expertly than most wannabes do: she “was playing by the rules. She mastered those rules. And she got where they take you.” Rather than call Albert a monster, says Sycamore, we ought to examine what it is about the entertainment industry that allows such a massive scam to be possible. “Most people live on the fringes, die on the fringes, if they’re lucky—if they even get to do their art at all,” she says. For her, the real harm of Albert’s “tragic and overwhelming manipulation” is the lie embedded in her misleading message to struggling youth, “I was homeless and on the streets and addicted to heroin, and now, I’m in Vanity Fair!”
We eager consumers of the industry’s products know that we facilitated the fraud. Before I even finished reading Sarah in 2002, I bought six copies for friends.
Rufus Wainwright and Carrie Fisher unwittingly perpetuated and legitimated the hoax. Lou Reed, Jeremy Renner, Sandra Bernhard, Matthew Modine, poet Sharon Olds and many other public figures performed without payment at readings of JT LeRoy’s work. On screen, Nancy Sinatra professes love for JT before reading from The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things. Considering these endorsements, any reader could be forgiven for failing to thoroughly scrutinize the JT LeRoy myth. Instead, JT’s supporters were moved to scrutinize themselves: “He’s one of those people that you want to live more truthfully after spending time with,” says actor Ben Foster in the film, with great emotion, as he begins a reading from one of JT’s books. The line earned a melancholy laugh from the screening audience each time I saw the film.
Unlike the talking-head interviews that fill many documentaries, some of the interviews in the film were videorecorded by court reporters during deposition testimony in a lawsuit. This adds the gravitas of under-oath verisimilitude to the proceedings. Even interviewees who stop short of calling Albert “evil” opine that she suffers from one or more serious mental disorders. San Francisco psychologist Terrence Owens, who has never spoken to the press about the matter, testifies that for two years, he conducted daily telephone therapy sessions with the person he thought was JT, and later treated Albert. He states that to call Albert “manipulative” greatly oversimplifies the depth of her psychological sickness.
The accusations of evil and diagnoses of mental illness are easy to dismiss as reflections of the critics’ own narcissism, celebrity-frenzy and envy, as well as embarrassment at having been fooled by a scam artist who claimed to be faxing manuscripts from a public restroom where addicts were shooting heroin. But many vulnerable, troubled young people had drawn great inspiration from their belief that JT was real.
For agent Ira Silverberg, who recently served as literary director at the National Endowment for the Arts, the betrayal to the gay community is acute. We lost friends and loved ones, many of them artists, to AIDS. “By the time she came along, saying ‘I’m a fifteen-year-old with HIV,’ she got to a lot of people who had a lot of empathy, who really thought the voice of the young person suffering would be important to hear and get out into the world. She hit a lot of us below the belt.”
Even more haunting is the reaction of twenty-eight at-risk teenagers at an LGBTQ youth center in San Francisco: they ask for an apology. One of the kids reads an open letter on camera, explaining that, as young people who deal daily with homelessness, drug addiction, HIV and prostitution, “we are appalled by the exploitation of our real-world struggles by JT LeRoy and company for the purpose of personal profit and celebrity.”
The Cult of JT LeRoy won this year’s Jury Prize at the San Francisco Independent Film Festival (Indiefest) and is headed for the HOT DOCS documentary film festival in Toronto; the Boston LGBT Film Festival; Portland, Oregon’s QDoc Festival; the Florida Film Festival; and many others before theatrical release.